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John Edwards: A Dud Of The Democratic Party

I haven't weighed in on the John Edwards/Rielle Hunter/love child story, on which the heavy lifting has been done by Mickey Kaus and the heavy reporting has been done by the National Enquirer, whose first story appeared back in December 2007. Anyone who hasn't already done so can follow the links on Mickey's blog to follow the discussion on how mainstream media mostly flinched from covering this story; I've been doing so with great interest. I'm sympathetic to the argument that MSM tended to avoid the story out of sympathy for Elizabeth Edwards. But it's hard to avoid the conclusion that MSM are more hesitant in following scandal stories about Democrats than those about Republicans.

I want to make another point. One of the arguments against covering the story last month was that Edwards isn't a presidential candidate anymore. It's a weak argument: He was arguably a vice presidential possibility and was mentioned as a possible attorney general in an Obama administration. But this argument had no validity at all in December 2007, when Edwards was very much a presidential candidate with a nontrivial chance to win the Democratic nomination.

Most of the press seems to have forgotten that, and Edwards's candidacy did in fact collapse before the end of January 2008. But let's look back and see how he did in the caucuses in Iowa, where he campaigned strenuously for two years or so. The big headline out of Iowa, rightfully, was Barack Obama's victory. The second headline was Hillary Clinton's embarrassing third-place finish. Lost in the shuffle was the fact that Edwards finished second. And a fairly close second. Counting state convention delegate equivalents as the Iowa Democratic Party does, Obama had 37.58 percent of the vote, Edwards had 29.75 percent, and Clinton 29.47 percent. In fact, Clinton probably had more actual people (and Obama quite a few more actual people) attending the caucuses than Edwards did; the Iowa Democrats' representation formula favors rural counties where Edwards ran well (the link includes a map) and disfavors Polk County (Des Moines) and the university-dominated Story County (Ames) and Johnson County (Iowa City), where Obama ran very well.

Still, if not too many more thousands of Iowans had turned out for caucus night for Edwards, the headline story would have been Edwards wins Iowa caucus. And if the Rielle Hunter story had received the publicity that mainstream media, with the benefit of hindsight, now think it should have gotten, Edwards's candidacy would have cratered and Hillary Clinton might have won in Iowa. Clinton press spokesman Howard Wolfson (hat tip to Jim Geraghty, National Review Online) argues that she would have; others have argued that polls showing Iowa caucusgoers' second choices indicated that a plurality of erstwhile Edwards voters would have gone to Obama. We can't be sure of what would have happened in this counterfactual. But it seems pretty clear that a Clinton win in Iowa, followed five days later by a Clinton win in New Hampshire, probably would have sewn up the Democratic nomination for her. An Edwards win would probably have given his candidacy something of a bounce, though maybe not in New Hampshire (where in 2004 he finished a weak fourth after finishing a close second in Iowa), but quite possibly in South Carolina, where he was born, which he carried in 2004 45 percent to 30 percent over John Kerry but where he finished third with just 18 percent of the vote. Had Edwards rather than Obama have won in Iowa, black voters might not have switched from being equally divided between Obama and Edwards to being overwhelmingly for Obama. That might have helped Edwards or, more plausibly, Clinton in South Carolina and other states in the South.

The argument for allowing Iowa and New Hampshire always to host the first caucuses and the first primaries is that it forces the candidtes to prove themselves in retail politics and it allows voters to assess their character and qualifications in a way that's impossible in larger (and smaller) states that vote later. I have watched Iowa audiences, good stolid folk, listen to John Edwards's identical-down-to-the-same-word stump speeches. Edwards has long struck me as a phony through and through (more than any other presidential candidate this cycle), and I have found his riff on poverty profoundly unimpressive. His command of issues and his knowledge of history and our society have seemed exceedingly thin; say what you want about Bill Clinton's character, he has a strong intellect and wide-ranging knowledge, fine political judgment, and the capacity to learn from his mistakes. Edwards has demonstrated none of these things. Yet he came close to winning the Iowa caucuses, not once but twice. I hope his near successes there lend strength to the arguments of those, notably Michigan Sen. Carl Levin and Democratic National Committeewoman Debbie Dingell, who have urged that we not subcontract so much of our presidential decision making to Iowa caucusgoers. They nearly foisted a dud on the Democratic Party and on all of us in 2004 and 2008.

By Michael Barone